Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Keith Levenson, February 15, 2022

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:00 - Views on the COVID-19 vaccine

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Partial Transcript: Okay, it is February the 15th, 2022.

Segment Synopsis: Levenson played several outdoor gigs in the summer of 2021, but had numerous indoor performances cancelled in the fall of 2021. Levenson states that he supports freedom of choice, except when it affects his ability to make a living, in reference to vaccine hesitancy amongst many Americans. Levenson views that COVID-19 pandemic conditions are improving, but many artists still do not feel comfortable performing at indoor venues at the moment. Levenson explains that he believes people have a personal responsibility to get the COVID-19 vaccine for the greater good of society, which Levenson states is similar to traffic laws and smoking on airplanes. Levenson hopes to begin rehearsing for a show next week, but worries it will not come to fruition, since many musical performances have been cancelled during the most recent COVID-19 wave from the Omicron variant. Levenson understands that many people are hesitant to attend Broadway shows because of the need to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination at the door and wear a mask for the entire show, on top of increased ticket prices. Levenson states that he knew people who died from COVID-19 prior to the development of the vaccine (in December 2020). In January, Levenson was slated to participate in a month-long run of the musical "Carousel" in Florida. Several performances were given of the musical until some members of the orchestra contracted COVID-19. Levenson states that COVID-19 spread amongst the cast members and the theater decided to cancel the rest of the shows.

Keywords: Analogies; COVID-19 vaccine; Cancellations; Carousel (Musical); Music shows; Music tours; Musical directors; Omicron variant (COVID-19); Politics; Proof of vaccination; Road safety; Vaccination rates; Vaccination requirements

Subjects: Airplanes; Artists; Broadway (New York, N.Y.); COVID-19 (Disease); COVID-19 pandemic, 2020-; Fear; Florida; Health; Masks; Money; Music; Musical performance; Musicals; Musicians; New York; New York (N.Y.); Orchestra; Pandemics; Protection; Public health; Responsibility; Safety; Smoking; Social distancing (Public health); Society; Tickets; Vaccine hesitancy; Vaccines

00:10:23 - Returning to live performances / Views on COVID-19

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Partial Transcript: So you said, uh, earlier that you had--you'd begun performing again last summer. So what was that like the first time, um, that you went back to performing...

Segment Synopsis: Levenson returned to performing live in the summer of 2021 at a special outdoor show of "Shakespeare and the Beatles" near his home in Westchester County. Levenson rehearsed in his living room for the show, and recalls that the audience was socially distanced and wore masks, and were required to bring their own food to the show. Levenson states that no one contracted COVID-19 from the show (to his knowledge). Levenson remembers that there was optimism during the summer of 2021 that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic was over, especially in New York because of its high vaccination rate. Levenson believes that it is time to move on from the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying health and safety protocols to slow down the spread of the disease. Levenson thinks that both liberal and conservative news outlets have been sensationalizing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keywords: Andrew Cuomo; COVID-19 vaccines; Delta variant (COVID-19); Democrats; Disinformation; Drinks; Mask mandates; Music gigs; Music shows; News; Outdoor performances; Pandemic fatigue; Pods; Rehearsals; Republicans; Vaccination rates

Subjects: Airplanes; Artists; Audiences; COVID-19 (Disease); COVID-19 pandemic, 2020-; Communities; Conservative; Conservatives; Disinfection and disinfectants; Education; Florida; Food; Governors; Liberal; Masks; Music; Musical performance; Musicians; New York; Optimism; Pandemics; Parks; Picnics; Protection; Public health; Risk; Social distancing (Public health); Travel; Vaccines; Westchester County (N.Y.)

00:17:05 - COVID-19 tour protocols

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Partial Transcript: Well, let's talk about, uh, about the tours.

Segment Synopsis: Levenson is about to embark on a tour with The Who in April 2022 around the United Kingdom. Levenson is unsure about the rules imposed by management surrounding COVID-19 protocols and restrictions for crew members. Levenson recalls that crew members touring with The Eagles were tested for COVID-19 frequently, and not permitted to leave their hotel for any reason. Food had to be delivered to the hotel or crew members could order room service. Levenson states that the crew members on this tour were relieved to finish the last show due to the considerable restrictions placed upon them. Levenson also says that the pay for musicians is worse due to the high cost of COVID-19 insurance in case the tour has to be cancelled.

Keywords: COVID-19 protocols; COVID-19 testing; Music tours; Pay; Rules; The Eagles (Artist); The Who (Artist)

Subjects: Artists; COVID-19 (Disease); COVID-19 pandemic, 2020-; England; Food; Hotels; Insurance; International travel; London (England); Management; Money; Music; Musical performance; Musicians; Pandemics; Public health; Safety; Seattle (Wash.); Uncertainty; United Kingdom

00:21:28 - Financial assistance for musicians during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Partial Transcript: One of the things that we talked about last time was how MusiCares had--

Segment Synopsis: Levenson states that he is going to be forced to move from his home because his landlord has to sell the house. Levenson received an assistance payment for one month from MusiCares, which is a non-profit organization designed to help musicians through periods of financial uncertainty. Levenson also received a Small Business Administration loan from the federal government, since he owns a small T-shirt company. Levenson helped other gig workers to file for unemployment, and expresses his frustration at the federal government's decision to end unemployment benefits over concerns of unemployment fraud. Levenson believes that it is unfair to stop unemployment benefits for gig workers, since establishments with many gig workers such as restaurants and performing arts venues have been unable to fully re-open due to public health restrictions. Levenson adds that many musicians have been unable to find work since the industry has taken such a financial hit from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keywords: Entertainment industry; Gig workers; Loan forgiveness; Lockdowns (COVID-19 pandemic); Moving; Music industry; Requirements; Restaurant industry; Unemployment

Subjects: Artists; Budgets; Business; COVID-19 (Disease); COVID-19 pandemic, 2020-; Economics; Finance; Gig economy; Income; Landlords; Loans; Money; MusiCares (Firm); Music; Musicians; New York; Pandemics; Poverty; Public health; Rent; Restaurants; Social distancing (Public health); Time; United States. Small Business Administration; Westchester County (N.Y.); Work

00:27:24 - Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on New York City

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Partial Transcript: I'm under the impression that there was, um, kind of a mass exodus out of New York City, uh, during the lockdown.

Segment Synopsis: Levenson states that most musicians and artists who left New York City at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 probably will not return to the city. Levenson says that there are few employment opportunities for musicians and artists to return to the arts, since many music venues have closed due to financial hardship from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of Levenson's musician friends who used to live in New York have shifted to other types of work, including a friend who now works in a casino as a blackjack dealer. Levenson explains that the future of the music industry in New York is uncertain, since the city's economy is so dependent on tourism which has been heavily curtailed by international travel restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19. Levenson believes that COVID-19 pandemic restrictions are unsustainable at this point and need to be lifted. In Levenson's view, society should treat COVID-19 like the flu, since demand for entertainment with COVID-19 pandemic public health restrictions has declined. Levenson recalls that there was an initial excitement surrounding the reopening of restaurants and music venues, but states that many people are tired of wearing masks at Broadway shows, for instance.

Keywords: COVID-19 protocols; COVID-19 recession; Demand; Depopulation; Entertainment industry; Exciting; Hamilton (Musical); Music venues; Travel restrictions; Unemployment

Subjects: Artists; Audiences; Broadway (New York, N.Y.); Busboys; COVID-19 (Disease); COVID-19 pandemic, 2020-; Casinos; Economics; Employees; Fear; Health; Influenza; Jazz; Jazz musicians; Lifestyles; Masks; Music; Musical performance; Musicals; Musicians; New York; New York (N.Y.); Nightclubs; Orchestra; Pandemics; Public health; Recessions; Restaurants; Society; Spring; Tourism; Tourists; Travel; Uncertainty; Waiters; Winter; Work; World

00:32:37 - Role in helping gig economy workers with unemployment benefits

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Partial Transcript: The first time that we talked you were, um, such an advocate for, uh, musicians.

Segment Synopsis: Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Levenson has worked to help fellow musicians secure unemployment benefits from the federal government, a first for gig economy workers (since they do not receive benefits for paying taxes). At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Levenson felt a bit depressed and decided that he need to do something to help others through this difficult time. Levenson states that many musicians were embarrassed and ashamed to admit that they were unemployed, which made it difficult for some artists to ask for help. In the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, gig economy workers could apply for unemployment benefits, which Levenson says is helpful since many gig economy workers are paid informally or through contract work.

Keywords: Advocates; CARES Act; Contract work; Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act; Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES); Freelancing; Funds; Lockdowns (COVID-19 pandemic); Taxes; The Who (Artist); Unemployment; Unemployment benefits

Subjects: Artists; COVID-19 (Disease); COVID-19 pandemic; Economics; Embarrassment; Employees; Federal government; Gig economy; Loans; Money; Music; Musicians; New York; New York (N.Y.); Pandemics; Public health; Shame; Social distancing (Public health); State governments; Stress; Uncertainty; Wages; Westchester County (N.Y.)

00:37:33 - CARES Act unemployment benefits

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Partial Transcript: I--di--did you ever learn, um--so there, there were two kinds of funds that I can't even keep straight, um, for--

Segment Synopsis: Levenson explains the difference between the two main types of unemployment compensation from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act. PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) funds were new and designed to help gig workers collect unemployment compensation. Levenson helped many musicians with filing for unemployment in the state of New York, which was difficult and confusing for some people. Levenson explains that calculated wages for PUA applicants in the state of New York were based on quarterly earnings, and that PUA funds were temporary. Levenson also states that there was a provision in New York for excluded workers who qualified for PUA funds, but did not apply for the program. Levenson recalls that many gig workers did not follow through with applying for PUA funds, and faced financial hardships as a result. Levenson learned that filing for unemployment compensation, in his opinion, is difficult and complicated on purpose. Levenson also realized that the people he was helping to file for unemployment compensation had to take the initiative to finish the process, especially when it came to filing in personal information on the application, such as social security numbers.

Keywords: Assistance; CARES Act; COVID-19 recession; Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES); Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement; Funds; Internal Revenue Service (IRS); Lockdowns (COVID-19 pandemic); Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC); Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA); Qualifications; Requirements; Taxes; Unemployment; Unemployment benefits; Unemployment compensation

Subjects: COVID-19 (Disease); COVID-19 pandemic, 2020-; Employees; Federal government; Gig economy; Income; Learning; Money; New York; New York (N.Y.); Pandemics; Recessions; Social security; Starvation; State governments; States; Survival; United States. Internal Revenue Service; Wages

00:43:15 - Running a business during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Partial Transcript: Well, let's talk about business, your business.

Segment Synopsis: Levenson started Fustercluck during the COVID-19 pandemic, an online store selling politically-themed merchandise. Levenson explains that the profits from the store go to MusiCares, which helps musicians in financial difficulties. Since President Biden was elected in 2020, Levenson states that he has found it more difficult to come up with design ideas for merchandise, since the business had originally been focused around lampooning controversial figure President Trump. Levenson views the future for Fustercluck as uncertain, but he would like to orient the company towards a more music-centric theme instead of politics.

Keywords: 2020 presidential election; Clothing; Controversy; Donald Trump; Fustercluck (Company); Joe Biden; Merchandise; Non-controversial; Small businesses; Website; Wife

Subjects: Artists; Business; COVID-19 (Disease); COVID-19 pandemic, 2020-; Design; Money; MusiCares (Firm); Music; Musicians; Pandemics; Politicians; Presidents; T-shirts; Uncertainty

00:46:00 - Orchestration in rock music

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Partial Transcript: Walk me through a, a history of orchestras in rock.

Segment Synopsis: Levenson describes his work in orchestrating music while performing with bands on tour. When Levenson worked with the vocalist Meat Loaf, he collaborated with the music director and listened to audio recordings of previous Meat Loaf shows to get a feel for the musical style of the band. Levenson liked to create a more cohesive sound between the orchestra and the music, since Meat Loaf's sound is so powerful that listeners do not expect to hear a single string instrument without the accompaniment of singers.

Keywords: Audio recordings; Bands; Meat Loaf (Artist); Music gigs; Music tours; Musical directors; The Who (Musical group)

Subjects: Arrangements (Music); Artists; Listening; Music; Musical instruments; Musical performance; Musicians; Orchestra; Recordings, Audio; Rock music; Singers; Songs